Monday, April 19, 2010

"Sing a Song of Terror"

"To stay alive he had to outwit a madman."

That's pretty much the plot for "Sing a Song of Terror," John D MacDonald's second of five stories published in The Saturday Evening Post. Appearing in the September 9, 1961 issue, it runs 6,250 words and is a nifty and suspenseful little set-piece that MacDonald liked so much he used it again several years later. This late-period work of short fiction shows the confident author in complete control of his ability to plot narrative, create suspense and draw a finely-detailed and completely believable character.

Dillon Pritchard is driving alone at night down a secondary road somewhere in South Carolina. He's a vice president and sales manager of the Atlantic Industrial Pump Corporation and he is doing what he does for most of the year: heading to yet another branch office to meet with yet more salesmen. Married and the father of two daughters, his family sees him only sporadically throughout the year and that fact is wearing on his wife Martha. But Dil is a dedicated and hardworking man and he always promises that "next year" he will be home more often. Somehow, it never happens.

He's doing sixty-five and has been on the road for six straight hours when suddenly something appears in front of the car.

"At that moment the running girl burst into the white cone of headlights, running pale and fleet from right to left, so sickeningly close to the front of the car that his instinctive swerve to the right came after he had missed her flying heels. His mind retained an image of her like a still picture, her motion frozen, with wild fair hair, face half-turned in an endless grimace of terror."

The "big swift rental sedan" begins to swerve and Dil ends up in a ditch, the engine dead. He silently curses the girl for the time she will cause him to miss, and he recalls that the last town he passed was fifteen minutes behind him. Wet and muddy, he attempts to climb out of the ditch and onto the road, the moonless night illuminated by the beams of the car's headlights.

"When he was a few feet in front of his headlights, he heard a sound as if two flat, dry boards had been slapped together. There was a simultaneous tug at the sleeve of his lightweight jacket, a clang behind him and the unmistakable treble howl of a ricochet."

"Without an instant of hesitation," Dil whirls and scrambles up the opposite bank of the ditch and into the cover of some nearby trees. All his old instincts and "unthinking patterns" instantly return to him from his days in North Africa, Sicily and up the Italian boot, when Pfc. Dillon Pritchard served his one hundred and sixty-one days of combat duty during World War II. But there is a difference between the "stringy, tireless, battle-tough" Army private and the "executive weight and softness" of the man today. He gradually acquires his night vision and does some thinking. The running girl was obviously fleeing from someone intent on killing her, and this person was now planning the same fate for Dillon. Remaining hidden he calls out "Why did you shoot at me?" only to be answered by three quickly spaced shots, all in his general vicinity. A truck drives by, the driver sees the wrecked car in the ditch and stops. He is quickly shot down as he approaches the car on foot. When another car screams by, Dil uses the opportunity to take off into the vast field behind him.

"Suddenly there was a thin, quavering cry that prickled the flesh on the backs of his hands and the nape of his neck. 'Gone kill yah!' the man yelled into the whispery, fragrant night. 'Gone kill yah!'"

He eventually stumbles upon the girl, a terrified teenager who moans, "He's kilt about ever' body." She points to her nearby house and weeps, "They're all kilt in there. There's no telephone along here. There's my pa's gun. I'm scared to go in there." She tells Dil that the gunman is Bert Tallis, a loner who lives off in a shack and who has not been "real right in the head since they sent him back from Korea long ago." When Dil is finally able to sneak into the girl's house to get her father's gun, he discovers that Bert has been a busy, busy man...

If this plot sounds familiar -- and it certainly should for anyone reading a blog on John D MacDonald -- it's because the author reused it nine years later as the first chapter of the twelfth Travis McGee novel The Long Lavender Look. The location is different and Dil, unlike Travis, is alone, but the other elements are the same: the car speeding through a hot southern summer night, the girl running in front of the car and nearly getting clipped, the swerving car eventually ending up in a roadside ditch full of water, and a killer on the loose, looking for the girl and now after the occupant of the wrecked car. There have been other precursors of scenes, events and methods that were later used in Travis McGee stories -- the appearance of the Muñequita in The Last One Left, the story of the cruise ship to Nassau from "A Touch of Miss Mint," later used in Darker Than Amber, the melting of wax over hidden valuables in The Deep Blue Good-By, found in at least two early stories -- but this is the only instance I'm aware of where the author used nearly an entire short story as the basis for a chapter in a novel. As anyone who has read Lavender can attest, it's a great way to begin a novel and it works equally well as a self-contained story.

"Sing a Song of Terror" -- originally titled "To Stay Alive" by MacDonald -- has yet to be anthologized.

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